It’s often been said that too much control and management will stifle creativity. But without strong leadership, teams lack direction.

Successful leaders inspire and support their teams to do their best creative work while maintaining the structure necessary to achieve results. But how can leaders achieve that balance? And what kind of approaches should creatives be looking for from their managers?

Here are 4 inspiring and innovative examples of leaders who empowered creative organizations, with some key takeaways for more creative work environments.

Trust + Autonomy = Creative Freedom

Creativity often depends on exploration with trial and error. This can sometimes conflict with the need to meet defined targets and demonstrate results. But to find the best solutions, people must have the freedom to try things out and approach them from new angles (without worrying that they’ll be censured).

A fierce advocate of this way of thinking is the executive chairman (and former CEO) of toy behemoth Lego, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp.

Knudstorp was responsible for turning Lego’s fortunes around in the early 2000s and has helped the brand to thrive ever since. In a 2017 interview with the Boston Consulting Group, he explained that one of his greatest pleasures is being able to thank the staff for doing the things he never asked them to do. He views his staff’s ability to surprise him as one of the company’s greatest strengths and believes that autonomy is essential for creativity.

When interviewed by IMD in 2019, Knudstorp put forward a vision for the future of management that encapsulates this need for trust and autonomy. He describes the role of a successful, modern leader as that of a coach providing direction and support rather than a boss issuing orders.

As another hugely successful leader, Steve Jobs, put it, “I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.”

The Takeaway: The need for strong management and the need for creative freedom don’t have to clash. If a leader learns to trust their staff and creates a robust process that leaves room for exploration, they can keep things on track while giving their team the space they need to innovate.

Cultivate a Culture of Collaboration

For managers, it’s important to consider the team as a whole and how they work together. This is particularly vital when it comes to creative work, as people can feel very defensive about their ideas. Creating an environment where people feel confident to put ideas forward and where feedback is given in a supportive way is essential for a healthy dynamic.

“Collective Creativity” was central to Ed Catmull’s winning formula at Pixar, the legendary animation studio.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he explained that one major challenge was getting talented people to work effectively with each other: “That takes trust and respect, which we as managers can’t mandate; they must be earned over time. What we can do is construct an environment that nurtures trusting and respectful relationships and unleashes everyone’s creativity.”

To do that, Pixar set up many initiatives designed to make sure that people received the support of their colleagues in a comfortable and mutually respectful environment.

One of the most famous is “The Brain Trust”, a group of creative leaders at Pixar who periodically get together to analyze each other’s current projects. Catmull believes the success of this exercise partly stems from the fact that people respect the director whose film is being discussed is in control – nobody tells the director what to do, they simply offer their honest thoughts.

Other initiatives include test screenings that staff from all over the studio are invited to attend. There’s a Development Department made up of small workshop groups. The professional development sessions are designed to give people insight into the work of their colleagues. Not only do these approaches normalize collaboration, but they also ensure a wide range of perspectives.

The Takeaway: Making group work and feedback processes as unthreatening and respectful as possible will result in far better collaborations. By making collaboration a seamless and expected part of a business’s culture, it’s possible to overcome people’s reluctance to let others influence their creative work.

Being Valued and Valuable

“If you water a flower it will flourish, if you praise a person, they will flourish.” – Richard Branson

Motivation is key to creativity. Making a team feel valued and proving to them that they’re valued for making a real difference in the business will inspire them to level up their thinking.

This is something that business tycoon Sir Richard Branson expects the leaders of the various Virgin companies to exemplify. Managers at Virgin are asked to do two key things to motivate their staff:

  1. Praise rather than criticize.
  2. Listen to and act on employee suggestions.

The first encourages people to bring ideas forward, even if they seem unorthodox. It also enables people to have faith in their creative ability, something that helps to build their creative confidence. Even if an idea isn’t viable, focusing on the positives will enable someone to return to the drawing board with the belief that the next one might be.

The second is even more crucial as it allows them to see that their ideas truly matter to their leader and can make a material difference to the business. This makes teams feel like real contributors to a business’s success. That sense of collective ownership will encourage them to do their best work.

The Takeaway: People need to feel heard, valued, and invested in their output. By praising teams for the act of creating and showing that their ideas are valued, leaders can foster an environment that perpetuates creativity.

Nurture Passion

Passion can result in amazing creative work. It motivates people to come up with original ideas and also helps them to power through rough patches. There’s even some evidence to suggest that passion can help to rewire our brains, positively impacting our entire outlook on life.

One company that married passion with practicality is tech giant Google, through their ‘20% rule’. The founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, summed it up this way:  “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.” This ranged from projects (Google’s AdSense, Maps, and Gmail were a product of this initiative) to skill acquisition and professional development.

According to Brin and Page, the initiative empowered Google staff to be more creative and innovative.

Letting employees pursue their interests and personal values encourages them to adopt a more curious, exploratory, and enthusiastic mindset – something that will benefit not just their passion projects but their everyday tasks as well. It also inspires them to believe that they, as an individual, can better the business.

The Takeaway: Supporting staff to follow their interests and values will help them adopt a more curious and creative approach across the board. It may also result in valuable ideas they wouldn’t have had the time or motivation to develop otherwise.

Inspiring and Empowering Creativity as a Leader

By creating processes designed to help creativity thrive, leaders can empower their staff and the business. If managers respect the role that exploration and passion play in great creative work, they will achieve better results and will create a more fulfilling environment.

If people feel valued by the leadership and invested in the business, it will have a beneficial impact on their ability to think and work creatively.